On a recent Thursday afternoon, Yunus Mohammed, was rounding off a video editing project when his phone beeped.
He tried to answer the call after finding it was a foreign number – +88233010830. But just before he could press the answer button, the call dropped.
He called back immediately. “I thought it was my boss who was away in Luxembourg calling,” he said.
The call went through. An automated white female voice responded, taking him through a maze of instructions. By the time he figured the call was a scam, he had listened into the call for a minute.
He was charged N250 for the call that lasted barely one minute.
He is one of the millions of mobile phone users in Nigeria targeted by premium rate phone fraudsters in a new wave of callback scams that could see Nigeria lose up to one billion Naira in one fell swoop.
The scam is set with foreign premium rate numbers. It beeps your phone with the call quickly terminated, luring you to believe a foreign contact is trying to reach you. Victims are those who call back. They unknowingly pay heavily for the minutes spent on the call.
“+16644115003 called me and then cut off; I was wondering if a lost and forgotten friend in Europe or America remembered me. On calling the number, a voicemail from a white lady was giving me instructions that I had won a certain amount of money that I needed to clear. There and then, I realised it was a scam and I was charged heavily from my airtime,” Kennedy Nsan, another Nigerian victim narrated.
A part of the amount paid by victims is deposited in the accounts of the fraudsters through a sophisticated telecommunication revenue generation system. The revenue earned through the call is shared between a local telecom operator and the owner of the premium rate number.
A premium rate number attracts a high fee and therefore callers end up paying high charges for the calls they make to this number. Some genuine businesses earn decent income by promoting premium rate numbers.
The fraud, which started over a decade ago is also known as the ‘Wangiri Fraud’ and originated in Japan in early 2000. ‘Wangiri’ literally means ‘one ring and cut’.
The Wangiri phone fraud involves a computer using certain phone lines to dial numerous mobile phones numbers at random. The numbers appear as missed calls on the recipients mobile. Believing a legitimate call was cut off, or simply curious, victims are enticed to call back.
The victim is then charged the exorbitant fee set by the fraudster.
At a little cost, the fraudsters hire international premium rate numbers for the scam that pays out up to N100 on every minute of call received.
A 2012 report released by BICS of Begacom, Belgian Telecom Company, indicates that in one attack targeted at Nigeria in 2012, the fraudsters got 50,000 callbacks from Nigerian victims and 9,600 in another similar attack.
It is almost impossible to quantify victims in the latest attack but in the past two weeks, several users have complained of receiving the missed calls and calling back.
Premium rate numbers are legal, making it difficult for operators to anticipate Wangiri. An official of Airtel Nigeria – worst hit by recent wave of Wangiri – told PREMIUM TIMES that whenever the networks senses an unusual activity on any of such lines, it is barred.
Telephone companies, in developed countries, usually offer blocking services to allow users bar premium rate numbers. But these blocking services are not available in Nigeria.
The Nigerian Communications Commission does not even acknowledge Wangiri as a scam.
“It is not everything you call scam,” Reuben Mouka, spokesperson of the commissioner said.
He argued that victims lose money on their volition and curiosity, by choosing to call back unknown missed calls.
“The man [fraudsters] did not force you to call back,” he added while blaming the networks for allowing the fraudsters access.
On the eve of Easter this year, similar fraudsters, using the same numbers – +88233010849, +88233010830, +88233010811 – targeted 53,000 Latvian Mobile Telephone, LMT, users. About 2500 customers were defrauded.
To keep the festive feeling, LMT compensated customers for damages suffered.
The fraud has also been recently reported in many African and Asian countries.
Kamai Chilumbu, from Lusaka in Zambia, also narrated a similar fraud story to PREMIUM TIMES.
European countries have already taken stern action against Wangiri fraudsters.
In August, 2010, the London Metropolitan Police rounded up nine fraudsters for a similar crime. But the fraudsters are recording massive success in Nigeria and other countries where the law is not stringent enough or authorities are looking the other way.
Mr. Mohammed, like many other victims in Nigeria, hardly reports these cases to the authorities.
“I do not trust the police to solve this kind of crime,” he said. “It is a waste of time to try to get my money back.”
“The number still flashes from time to time but I just ignore it,” Mr. Nsan said.